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November 12, 2008 > Bay Area Navy base maintains rich history

Bay Area Navy base maintains rich history

By Giovanni Albanese Jr.

Broccoli, cauliflower and hay fields populated the 1,700 acres known as Ynigo Ranch when Niles-native Laura Whipple viewed it in the late 1920s; but Whipple could see an air base.

Whipple was surveying the ranch because the United States Navy had decided to berth one of their two new rigid airships - U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon - at a West Coast location. Initially thought to be destined for Camp Kearney in San Diego, the focus turned northward, and San Francisco Mayor James Rolph stated a desire to find land large enough for a Naval base.

Whipple, a Washington Township real estate agent, became aware of the Mountain View ranch through hearsay. Once viewing the land, she began recruiting help to gather money in order to make the purchase. With help from the San Jose Chamber of Commerce and Bay Area newspapers, they raised $476,066 and bought 1,000 acres of land.

Two months after its acquisition, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill that authorized the Navy to purchase this land from the Chamber of Commerce. The fee: $1. Hoover also went on to appropriate $5 million for construction of the base.

In 1933, Naval Air Station Sunnyvale (physically located in Mountain View) was completed. The U.S.S. Macon was shipped to the Bay Area and U.S.S. Akron was sent to New Jersey. (Both ships were built in Akron, Ohio, by the Zeppelin Goodyear Company.)

On April 4, 1933, the U.S.S. Akron crashed. Seventy-eight crew members onboard the ship died. Among the 78 was chief of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, William A. Moffett. After his death, NAS (Naval Air Station) Sunnyvale was renamed to NAS Moffett Field in his honor. And, many street names found on Moffett Field are named after crew members of the U.S.S. Akron.

The U.S.S. Macon arrived in NAS Moffett Field in October, 1933. It crashed and was determined as unusable in February, 1935. Subsequently, the Navy decided that it would no longer continue making rigid airships and therefore Moffett Field served no purpose for them; it was turned over to the Air Corps.

At the onset of World War II, the Navy wanted the base back from the Air Corps. With the United States needing to build up its Navy and Army Air Corps, Moffett Field was turned into a training base for basic training, the second of a four-step process (primary, basic, advanced and tear-squadron).

In 1942, the Navy reclaimed the base; the Air Corps dispersed to other locations. The Navy then brought in blimps for anti-submarine warfare. (U.S.S. Macon was used for long-range scouting.) These blimps helped protect the West Coast from Japanese submarines.

Anti-submarine warfare patrols were in constant operation throughout World War II but as the war drew to an end, Moffett Field's focus shifted to fix-winged aircraft. The primary aircraft was a twin-engine patrol bomber designed for an attack on Japan. However, before the Navy used these bombers, the war ended.

Over the next several years, the Navy would bring in transports (1946), night-fighter squadrons (1948), air-development squadrons (1948) and then - along with Alameda and San Diego - Moffett Field became a Naval Air Station (1950s). 1961 saw jet fighters relocate to San Diego and jet-attack aircraft to Fresno; Piston-engine attack aircrafts, known as A-1 sky raiders, were gone by 1963.

At that point, P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft used Moffett Field as a base to locate and track Russian submarines. In addition to their primary focus, these aircraft served in air-sea rescue, and other missions that required aircraft over the Pacific Ocean.

The majority of P-3s were gone by 1993, and Moffett Field was retired as a Navy base on July 1, 1994. Rights to Moffett Field were turned over to NASA. By 1999, all naval reserve units had left Moffett Field.

The air field remains in use; on average, about a dozen aircraft will stop at Moffett Field each year; some for refueling before traveling over the Pacific Ocean while others for tests with NASA; the California National Guard remains the only active military aircraft to use the base, primarily for search-and-rescue missions.

Moffett Field Museum, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1994. Its mission is, "To acquire, preserve and display artifacts which illustrate the roles performed by the various military and NASA commands assigned to, or operating out of, Moffett Field in our endeavors to educate the public on the airfield's rich heritage." Although the museum has significant resources, some records are unavailable, not recorded or dispersed throughout the country.

On rare occasions the museum holds fundraisers to expand its collection. However, it relies primarily on donations - money, artifacts or newspaper clippings - and membership subscriptions. Money generated by the museum goes directly for preserving the museum and funding potential expansion.

This historic collection is open to the public at Moffett Field in Mountain View Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Docent-guided tours of the museum are available. Admission: Adults cost $5; senior citizens or disabled persons, $3; children 13-17, $2; and children under 12, active military personnel and MFHS members are free.

For more information about Moffett Field and its history, visit or call (650) 964-4024.

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